LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Nablus in April
23 May 2005
On April Fools’ morning, 2005, I headed to Nablus to
visit Dan, an English guy who volunteered with us in
Ramallah for a while.
Nablus is in the heart of the northern West Bank, and
the drive up was as beautiful as expected in the green
Holy Land spring.
Except, of course, for the depressing presence of the
ubiquitous illegal pre-fab Israeli settlements, all
built on someone’s bulldozed dreams.
My service taxi didn’t hit any checkpoints all the way
up to Huwara checkpoint, the infamous bottleneck about
six kilometers south of Nablus where thousands of
people every day are searched and questioned and (if
they’re lucky) herded single file through revolving
metal doors, usually while having loaded M-16s pointed
Nablus is entirely surrounded by checkpoints, and
Huwara is the busiest. Some of the worst abuses have
happened there, and it sounded like a hellish place.
I was surprised to find the nightmare nestled in a
broad green valley. I expected it to be blasted earth
like the lunar landscape surrounding the massive
Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. I
guess Qalandia’s supposed to be turned into an
international border (ten kilometers north of the
actual border) at some point while Huwara, smack in
the middle of the northern West Bank, might
eventually, theoretically, be abandoned.
I walked toward it, eager to see the town and my
friends and enjoy Nablus’ signature dessert.
I didn’t even make it past the pre-checkpoint station
before a soldier called me out. He asked where I was
from. I said America. He said dismissively, “You
“No Americans allowed.”
This sounded suspiciously like bollocks to me. “My
friend who’s American passed just the other day, no
problem,” I lied. My friend was actually British, but
what did it matter?
“Sorry, it’s rules.”
I argued a bit more and asked if there was someone I
could talk to, like the DCO. He said, “Yeah, the DCO
will be here in... thirty minutes.”
This was probably bollocks, too. The District
Coordinating Officer, a mythical beast that is
supposed to coordinate movement in the Palestinian
territories when no one else knows what to do, or if
you want to contest a seemingly arbitrary denial of
passage, never shows up. People have waited hours,
Thirty minutes? He probably made that up. An hour
later, he'd ask me to wait another half hour. Then
another hour later, oops, the DCO already left for
today. Come back tomorrow.
It’s one of their many tactics to stall people to
death without actually being confrontational. I had
no heart to wait around and find out if the typical
scenario would play itself out. Maddening doesn't
begin to convey it. That feeling of being
simultaneously choked and bulldozed.
Like so many weekend plans before, this one looked
like the whim of a power-drunk soldier was going to
send it down the crapper. Who knew if this was
actually policy or not? Or even if it was policy,
what gave them the right to make it, to deny me
passage to visit friends in a city that wasn't theirs?
Part of what being under occupation means is that
every time some kid (or official) feels like playing
Army Commando (or if it’s a Jewish holiday), anyone's
plans (or life) can be offhandedly destroyed. The
rules are often arbitrary, contradictory, and/or
contrary to international law and human decency.
Rules are often 'unofficial' or 'unwritten' and can
change without notice from day to day, hour to hour.
But even if you know the rules in a given situation,
and the soldiers are clearly breaking them, there’s
usually no recourse, no one to complain to. They are
A few weeks ago Dr. Mustafa had plans in Gaza to meet
other Palestinian leaders and representatives,
participate in the opening of a new medical center in
Jabaliya Refugee Camp, and give a lecture at the Red
Crescent Society. He had gone through the painstaking
process of applying for and receiving a permit from
the Israelis to do all of this.
But, the soldiers at the checkpoint into Gaza told him
no. Just like that. So he had to turn around and go
I have no idea how people, mothers and students and
professional people with things to do, put up with
this kind of thing for decades at a time. I begin to
understand why people risk their lives to sneak around
checkpoints just so they can get on with life.
But if we were the kind of people to take no for an
answer, we’d have been out of here long ago.
I called my friend in Nablus. He was nonplussed. “Go
up to Beit Iba. They’ll probably let you through.
That guy was just talking bollocks.”
I tried to find a taxi, but it would cost $15 to get
to Nablus's western checkpoint near the village of
Beit Iba. $15 is more than an average day's budget
I hate to think how much money of mine has been wasted
by soldiers and border guards forcing me to take
longer than necessary routes or detaining me until
there's no more public transport. I wasn't in the
mood to let them do it again. I called him back.
“No worries,” he said. “My friend Nick says you can
meet us in [a village nearby, let's call it Rami] and
we can walk over the mountains [to bypass the
checkpoints]. He fancies a walk anyway.”
A cab dropped me off on the side of a hill above Rami
near a dirt path. The view of the hillsides across
the valley was spectacular -- a crazy quilt of
cultivated land spreading out in silky greens on the
steep, convoluted landscape. Something like Tuscany,
but more lush and green. Switzerland maybe, minus the
snowy white peaks towering above.
I sat down between a couple of houses to enjoy it and
wait for the boys. I felt awkward as an ajnabiyya
(foreign chick) with no apparent business squatting on
a remote bit of private property. But a family soon
invited me in.
I was given a place of honor on the porch, and I
talked to the kids and the father for a while, asked
the usual questions and paid the usual compliments
about the nice home and the beautiful land and the
cute babies. I asked about the illegal Israeli
settlements visible on hilltops on either side of the
gorgeous valley. The father said that one was called
Bracha and the other Yitzhar.
My eyes widened. A lot of the worst settler terrorist
attacks come from Yitzhar: beating up kids and old
people, throwing stones at houses and cars, hit and
run attacks on children (including a settler who ran
his car over three young girls in a village nearby
last fall, breaking their bones and teeth, and then
sped off), destroying trees and greenhouses, poisoning
fields and stuffing dead animals down drinking wells,
even cold-blooded murder. And the settlers enjoy
near-immunity for their crimes. If a claim against
them is investigated at all, it usually results in
little more than a slap on the wrist. The jolly
father’s face darkened when he looked up there.
I said in Arabic, “The people from Yitzhar are crazy,
He said, “Kul Isra'ili majanin.”
We entertained each other, about six adults and
fifteen kids (it seemed to be a small family reunion),
until an almost gratuitously massive load of maglubeh
was plopped down on the table in front of us, upside
down on a platter with the rice spilling down the
sides like an avalanche. We ate it along with
maftoul, salad, soup, and yogurt until we couldn’t eat
another bite, and there were massive leftovers.
The hospitality here never ceases to amaze. When
people ask me to describe Palestine, sometimes I say,
“If you ask for directions, you get invited to
dinner.” This time I didn’t even have to ask for
The boys arrived from Nablus just as we were washing
up, and I thanked the family for the wonderful meal
and company and said goodbye. We started up the steep
mountain path, and as we topped the first ridge the
view of the Rami hillside retreated.
But then an even more astounding view opened up in
front of us: a village built on a cultivated hill
that was sheared away into a cliff on one side -- a
scene as grand and lush as a medieval Scottish castle
but more inviting and alive.
For a land as small as the West Bank, there are an
amazing number of unexpected treasures packed away in
thousands of nooks and crevices. With so few proper
maps or travelers, you don't have to go far off the
beaten path to feel like you're exploring a 10,000
year old undiscovered country.
We took a breather and chatted on a stone wall
overlooking the valley and the town. Nick said that
the last time he entered Israel, they pulled the same
“Sorry, we’re out of paper” trick on him as an excuse
not to give him a proper visa stamp. Luckily he has a
plane ticket with current security stickers on it as
proof of legal entry, so he's not quite as screwed as
There was some danger that soldiers would find us even
here. Military bases and settlements are everywhere,
and they have state-of-the-art observation towers that
can see just about everything. We walked quickly
after we left our little wall.
The Bracha settlement was somewhere on our right, and
we veered far to the left to avoid a hilltop
checkpoint near the settlement that's occasionally
manned by soldiers.
I felt jubilant, though. In your face, jeish!
(That’s Arabic for soldier.) Tell me I can't go to
Nablus? Well, here we are. The roads may belong to
you, but we still have [small parts of] the mountains
[on some days, if we're lucky].
Stick that in your gun and shoot it.
It was novel and kind of exciting to feel like
fugitives from laws we didn't recognize as legitimate,
like the Von Trapp family fleeing into Switzerland
from occupied Austria. The Alpine-ish landscape added
to the effect, and Julie Andrews songs crept
incongruously into my head. “The hills are alive...
with the sound of Uzis...”
If we’d been caught, though, the funny would have run
out real quick.
People sometimes ask why Palestinians don't have more
compelling and irrefutable video footage of Israeli
abuses and war crimes. First of all, there's plenty
of compelling if not conclusive footage of Israeli
crimes. I’ve seen more horrific videos and pictures
than I can count of journalists shot between the eyes,
entire apartment blocks being dynamited, children
who’d been gunned down with live ammo at peaceful
protests, our office being occupied and sacked in
2002, our hard drives stolen, walls graffitied, copy
machines pissed on and ruined, documents burned,
furniture broken... But they don't get much play in
the Western media. And the Israeli lobby and media
are amazingly good at downplaying and/or casting doubt
upon the credibility of bad press.
Second, aside from at least four cameramen who've been
shot by Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories
that I can name off the top of my head, and more
stories than I can count of erased/stolen/destroyed
cameras/laptops/tapes/documents at Israeli borders,
I'd like to see a CNN cameraman (most of whom seem to
live in Tel Aviv) climbing over that hill when Israel
closes all the checkpoints surrounding Nablus and
It’s easy to have a few good photos of war crimes, but
harder to prove it’s systematic. Usually, e.g. in the
case of the Khmer Rouge genocide, by the time the
evidence is irrefutable, it's too late to stop the
worst excesses. (See Samantha Power's book "A Problem
from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide".) Or, if
we or our strategic allies are the ones committing the
crimes, we simply fail to inform our loyal embedded
In an enlightened democratic state like ours, in the
rare instances that irrefutable evidence of our crimes
does come to light in a reasonably timely manner (like
Abu Ghraib), and enough people make a big enough fuss,
a few lower-ranking grunts might get a slap on the
wrist, or even indicted, and everyone goes home
feeling like justice was served.
Meanwhile, often as not, the Rumsfelds of the world
keep their positions of power and the systematic
In the case of the Israeli commander Captain R, who
shot a 13-year-old girl in Gaza and then unloaded his
whole clip at her at close range to “confirm the
kill”, he was only indicted on two counts of illegal
use of weapons, obstruction of justice (for his
initial false report), behavior unbecoming an officer,
and the improper use of authority that endangered
others. Note the conspicuous lack of the charge of
Just a couple of weeks ago, two more teenagers were
killed by Israeli soldiers with live ammunition at an
unarmed protest against the Apartheid Wall in Beit
Liqya, near Ramallah. The soldiers claimed, as usual,
that their lives were in danger and that they aimed
only for the lower bodies. Israeli soldiers must have
extraordinarily flimsy tanks, Jeeps, and flak jackets
and must also be stunningly bad shots.
More on the chutzpah front: the defense lawyer of a
Bedouin Israeli soldier who shot and killed British
student and photographer Tom Hurndall defended his
client by claiming that Tom died not from the Israeli
bullet to his head, but due to the incompetence of the
doctors in Britain who oversaw his comatose body for
the nine months he spent in a vegetative state before
The boys and I walked down into the valley and over
another mountain. As we topped the next ridge, the
full view of Nablus opened up in front of us, nestled
in its enormous green valley and built of indigenous
Nablus, known as the Uncrowned Queen of Palestine, has
a reputation both as a proud and beautiful economic
and cultural center and as a besieged and miserable
penal colony due to its tendency toward resisting
oppression and the consequent scope of closure and
brutality it’s been subjected to under occupation.
From up on the hill it looked the picture of
well-ordered serenity, except for the massive menacing
blight of an Israeli military base built on one of the
hills overlooking it like a despised overlord.
The city was built in 72 A.D. about a mile west of the
ruins of ancient Biblical town of Shechem by the Roman
general Titus (later emperor) and dubbed Flavia
Neapolis -- Flavia after the emperor Vespasian and
Neapolis meaning "new city". Titus populated it with
retired Roman veterans, and Christians and Samaritans
also lived and flourished there, and some of their
descendants live there still today. When the Arabs
took over in 636 A.D., with their chronic lack of the
letter 'p', the name took on its present form.
We scrambled down the steep hillside and made our way
to the Old City. It was nearly evening by now and the
boys, who hadn’t enjoyed a massive hilltop home-cooked
meal like I had, were starving. We walked to an
upstairs café in a schmancy hotel, the Yasmina, which
was still cheaper than even the midrange restaurants
A lovely stained-glass window decorated the front of
the hotel. It featured a mosque whose clear
aquamarine dome had been shot cleanly through by a
single bullet. The image is a small but powerful
monument to the everyday hatred and violence that
occupy this city. Yet it was strangely beautiful and
evocative of hope, of rising above meanness and
The window was damaged wantonly by what I imagine to
be brainwashed children consumed by fear and hatred
and drunk on brute physical power. But it's still
there and strong and beautiful, seeming to smile
beatifically and ironically, the cracks in the limpid
glass around the bullet hole catching the sun
You can shoot all you want, it says. You’ll hurt us,
you’ll damage and try to ruin us, but you won’t
succeed. In the end we’ll still be here, and when you
finally leave or chill out, we’ll heal. But what can
save you from your intolerance and blindness, your
greed and violence? What will save your children from
the images they have of treating human beings like
dogs and worse?
In most ways that matter, we’ve already won. It’s
just a matter of time before you’ll have to come to
terms with that.
Come to think of it, maybe I’ve been here too long if
I heard a stained-glass window say all that.
Nick and Dan and I introduced ourselves more properly
over sodas and hummous and nargila in comfy chairs on
a glass-walled catwalk. Nick turned out to be an
Australian law student who hates lawyers and can’t
stand law firms. “I just like law.” His dream, I
gathered, is to travel all over slapping world leaders
around with their own law books.
They told a few stories of late-night shoot-ups in the
Old City, the neighborhood kids who always wanted the
ajanib (foreigners) to entertain them, and the
neighborhood militants who would probably shoot out
their kneecaps if they brought any girls into their
houses and did inappropriate things.
I said I hoped I didn’t happen to meet the soldier who
had refused me entry into Nablus while I was inside
Nick said, “Yeah, that would be bad news.”
I said, “Yeah, it WOULD be bad news.” I punch my
right fist into my left palm. “For HIM.” We laughed.
We wandered around the Old City, one of the most
spectacular and intact in the Middle East, although
vast sections of it have been obliterated by Israeli
bombs, rockets, and bulldozers, including an ancient
soap factory. We stopped to have some kunafa
Nablusiyya, the sweet cheesy dessert that takes its
name from the city.
Weeks later I looked at a Palestinian journalist’s
photo album that showed terrible images of Israeli
invasions, terrorist bombings of residential areas,
and murders. It brought home to me the fact that I
really have no idea what occupation means even though
I’ve been living under it for nearly a year. Ramallah
has its history of murder and invasion, hauntingly
depicted in a photo display in the entrance to my
office. But the incursions here are far less frequent
and violent, especially these days, and the aura of
that time has been put behind us for the most part --
although there is a distant giddy sense that we're
living on borrowed time. If Sharon keeps up what he's
doing, a Third Intifada is assured.
In Nablus on the other hand, even on peaceful spring
days, the specter of death and violence almost
tangibly haunts the minds and hallways of the town.
Unspeakable things have happened and keep happening
here, and life -- dimmed, scarred, hardened -- goes
on, waiting for a chance to bloom again, for peace and
humanity to overcome the degradation and helpless rage
and unhealthy fixations brought about by the
neverending attacks and constant humiliations of the
depraved Occupation machine.
Later we went to another upstairs café, where we had
strawberry juice and met a Chilean Palestinian woman
named Nadia who looked 100% Palestinian and talked,
acted, and dressed 100% Latin American.
It’s strange to see diaspora Palestinians come back,
being so much a part of this land, and so in love with
it. And yet their host society is indelibly implanted
over the Palestinian core. They possess the ethos of
Palestine, but the local customs, especially those
developed under the hardships of occupations, and
sometimes even the Arabic language, are foreign to
Someone recently wrote to an e-mail list I’m on about
the Right of Return:
"Next Year in Jerusalem",
David and Goliath,
Right of Return,
The Promised Land,
are now Palestinian words...
since 57 years!!!
A man from Beit Hanina, north of Jerusalem, who is now
living in Detroit, wrote to the list about how his
family ate bitter herbs (wild zaatar, or thyme) and
unleavened bread during their exodus to Jordan
1967. They never had time to let their bread rise,
either, before the Israeli army would be there,
chasing them down.
And now, to add insult & injury to injury & insult,
the Wall through Beit Hanina is literally cutting it
in two as well as isolating it into a Walled ghetto.
Israel, of course, will relieve the centuries-old town
of its best land.
As a writer I admire once said, “History doesn’t just
repeat itself – sometimes it positively regurgitates
I needed to go to a couple of holy sites for an entry
I’m writing for a revisionist encyclopedia of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Luckily they were both
very close to each other and also very close to the
Balata Refugee Camp.
Dan and I took a cab there, but the Church of Jacob’s
Well was closed. So we went to hunt for Joseph’s Tomb
I asked a couple of Palestinians for directions, and
they said not to bother because it wasn’t really
interesting. One said Joseph was not a real prophet,
and another said Joseph was probably buried in Egypt
somewhere. But we persisted, and they directed us to
Joseph, of Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame (not the
step-father of Jesus as I’d originally thought), was
the favored son born of the favorite wife (Rachel) of
Jacob, patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel. All
the other kids were born of Leah, the younger sister
of Rachel, and Leah and Rachel's maidservants.
Joseph’s brothers were so jealous of him and his
egocentric dreams and his favored status that they
sold him into slavery in Egypt and dipped his
“favorite son” coat in goat’s blood to make it look
like he’d been devoured by wild animals. Jacob,
Joseph's dad, the same guy who allegedly wrestled with
God and had his named changed to Israel, was
devastated by the loss of his favorite son but never
caught on to the deception.
Joseph ended up a favored son of Egypt itself, the
Pharaoh’s right hand man. Years later, his whole
family had to move from Canaan to Egypt to escape an
epic famine. As the story goes, Joseph’s the one that
saved Egypt from the same famine and, as his dreams
had prophesied, his whole family now had to bow before
The family stayed on in Egypt, but after a while the
descendants of Jacob got antsy because the Pharaoh was
making them work too hard and not allowing them enough
self-determination. So God brought a dozen terrifying
plagues on the Egyptians via Moses to make life so
unlivable for Egyptians that they'd have to "let [his]
people go". A Jewish friend of mine notes that God
acts as a terrorist in this chapter, targeting
innocent Egyptian civilians for the political
liberation of his people. (I wonder if his agents of
Jewish liberation called themselves the JLO?)
Then Moses dragged the Israelites (or Jacobites) out
to the Sinai. They spent about forty years spliffing
it up with the Bedouin (that’s my personal
interpretation anyway, having been to the Sinai
myself), and then emerged to conquer the land of
Then came Romans and Jesus and Arabs and Turks and
British and so on.
Now, if Joseph had indeed requested that his bones be
moved back to the land of Canaan once the Israelites
had conquered it, which was long after he died a very
rich man in Egypt, that would make it seem like he
knew that the Promised Land would be Israel someday,
and it would fit very neatly into the Israeli
Obviously, that still wouldn’t mean bollocks when it
comes to modern geopolitics and property rights unless
one is a literalist religious fanatic or willing to
use religious fanaticism to promote political aims.
OK, so according to some scrolls written centuries
after the fact, the Jews had control of parts of the
land of Canaan/Israel/Palestine for a relatively short
period of history. But there’s even more compelling
historical and archaeological evidence that the
Romans, Babylonians, and Persians did, too. Not to
mention the Arabs and Turks. (And who were those
Canaanites anyway? Where did they go?) Every one of
these peoples probably thought God gave it to them,
Let's take it as a given that a certain shade of the
tribes of Abraham conquered the land of Canaan at one
point more than 2000 years ago. And Genghis Khan
conquered most of central Asia some time back. And
the British occupied Iraq for a while in the early
20th century. But does that mean we should hand
Afghanistan "back" to Mongolia, or that Britain should
invade and occupy Iraq agai... uh, nevermind.
Seriously. If we consistently used ancient texts and
old conquests as property deeds, I'm sure some
pissed-off Trojans would turn up before long demanding
Gallipoli. The Japanese Shintoists believed they were
the divine chosen people, but their God must have been
angry with them, seeing as they didn't manage to keep
China very long. I have a Saudi friend who believes
that the conquest of the land of Canaan by the Arabs
(who also consider themselves sons of Abraham) and the
erection of the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount are
fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy.
The point is, this kind of reasoning is no way to
solve land disputes. Here’s a novel idea – why don’t
we use property deeds as property deeds? A lot of
Palestinians have fairly irrefutable property deeds to
lands now buried under Israeli national parks, and
Israelis don't even bother to reasonably dispute this.
An Israeli travel brochure says that Canada Park,
northwest of Jerusalem, was built on the ruins of
three “abandoned” Arab villages. I invite you to ask
the refugees from these villages how and why they lost
their homes. And a monastery in central Israel, when
describing its history, says that “in 1948, because of
the war between the Arabs and the Jews, hundreds of
Arab villages disappeared...” Just like that. Poof!
The Jews had a homeland some thousand years ago. The
Palestinians had a homeland 57 years ago, and many
have valid property deeds in their dresser drawers.
(And then there's the matter of the Palestinians whose
land is being stolen in the West Bank as we speak...)
I respect the Jews' longing for a homeland, but they
likewise should respect that same longing in the
Palestinians -- a longing backed up solidly by
international law for a land which was demonstrably
stolen from them.
But the powerful will use whatever excuse they can to
do whatever they want to do. That’s how it’s always
Back to Joseph's Tomb: Despite it being in the middle
of Nablus, Israel claimed it as their own sovereign
territory. Their property deed was none other than
the Old Testament. (Most of the ideological settlers
will tell you the same about their various settlements
built on Palestinian private property.)
Israeli defense ministers admitted that the supposed
religious connotations were used merely as an excuse
to hold onto this “bone in the throat” of Palestine.
The tomb used to be a reverential squat little
whitewashed stone Ottoman building with a dome over
the tomb. The Israelis started using it as a
fortified military base/yeshiva (Jewish religious
school) in the 1980’s, even though archaeological
evidence is patchy at best. It’s just as likely the
tomb of some Muslim sheikh named Yusif.
In any case, Israel maintained the site even after
1995, when Nablus was given over to nominal
Palestinian Authority control. Judging from my
experience with settlers, I'd be willing to bet they
weren’t the most respectful of neighbors. Having a
military base full of settlers (potent symbols and
actors of dispossession and occupation) right next to
a refugee camp (some of the most dispossessed and
oppressed people in the Territories) was a recipe for
Violent clashes broke out around the tomb in October
2000, in which six Palestinians and one Israeli were
killed. When the Israelis finally retreated under
fire, the army outpost and the little tomb shelter
were sacked by the Palestinians, probably just for the
sake of it but also to keep the Israelis from coming
Coming upon it now, tucked away in a back alley of a
poor residential area near a refugee camp, it was a
burned, blown-up, neglected ruin, a monument to the
depravity and insanity of occupation. The top of the
dome had been blown off, the walls were black with
soot, and the grave monument itself had been reduced
to rubble. The tiny grounds were overgrown, and even
some of the stairs were smashed. The destruction of
the place had apparently been orgiastic, and while
understandable, it seemed a pity. It would have been
a nice place for pilgrimage and reflection, no matter
who’s buried there.
But the ugly reality of occupation long ago
obliterated any holiness and serenity it might have
possessed. Its use as a strategic military base (from
which brutal incursions were almost certainly launched
into Nablus and the camps), and the despicably cynical
use of feverish religious fanatics crazy enough to
risk their lives and the lives of the soldiers to
claim it, had desecrated it before the Palestinians
ever set foot in it.
As we were walking away from the ruin, Dan pointed out
something on top of a hill, and I wiped my eyes in
disbelief. Perched on one of the high hills
surrounding Nablus was... something enormous like an
Acropolis, or the pagan temples at Baalbek, clearly of
Roman design, with columns and a dome, but... faintly
pink, shiningly new, and clearly lived in. It wasn’t
a ruin. It was someone’s house.
Dan said, “The richest Palestinian in the world built
that. He’s off in a yacht in the Mediterranean
somewhere. Imported all that Italian marble.”
We still had a couple of hours to kill before the
church opened, so we hailed a cab and asked it to take
us up to the palace on the hill. At first he tried to
take us to the Palace Hotel, but we said, “La, mish
al-funduq, al-qasr. Fouq, 'ala tel.”
He caught our drift and drove us up winding streets to
the hilltop mansion. We reached the gates of the
property, which were open, and to my utter shock, he
drove right through. We motored up the driveway and
into the backyard. There was a small Versailles-type
fountain in back, and astounding views of the hills
around Nablus and the green valley hinterlands
spreading out toward Huwara.
“Guys, guys, guys,” we heard someone say as he emerged
from a car parked under a cavelike garage. “No
pictures please. I am very sorry, but this is private
I was embarrassed to be caught trespassing, but the
cab driver just shrugged cheerfully. The estate
manager said we could enjoy the views as we liked as
long as we didn’t take pictures. He kept apologizing,
which I thought was taking the hospitality factor to
radical extremes. Anywhere else, he’d simply have
released the hounds.
The gate to the church grounds was still locked by the
time we made our way back down. We found a buzzer,
and soon the gate swung quietly inward. We were
greeted by a Palestinian man who walked silently down
to the front of the church and opened the doors for
The church would not have been out of place in Paris
or Florence, except that it was so new. Two tall,
graceful bell towers flanked the entryway, the ceiling
rose majestically overhead to a larger-than-life
portrait of Christ, and paintings and stained-glass
covered the walls leading up to a beautiful altar.
One painting depicted a naked man being hung upside
down by a spike through his ankles and skinned alive,
a halo under his beatific head. Weird.
The floor was of dirt and gravel and had no pews. I
thought maybe this was a way to be closer to the
earth, or humble yourself before God. But it turned
out they’d just run out of funds. The Greek Orthodox
priest was currently in Europe soliciting for floor
We asked the caretaker a few questions about the
church, and he said of course there were not many
visitors these days due to “the situation”, but next
week an Italian group was coming through, and in
general a couple of people trickled in every couple of
The real treasure was below the altar, down a small,
low stone staircase to the well chamber. There's a
particularly nice passage in the New Testament where
Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at this very well and
asks her for a drink.
"Now he [Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he
came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot
of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's
well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the
journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus
said to her, 'Will you give me a drink?'
The Samaritan woman said to him, 'You are a Jew and
I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a
drink?' (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, 'If you knew the gift of God
and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would
have asked him and he would have given you living
'Sir,' the woman said, 'you have nothing to draw
with and the well is deep. Where can you get this
living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob,
who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did
also his sons and his flocks and herds?'
Jesus answered, 'Everyone who drinks this water
will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I
give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give
him will become in him a spring of water welling up to
eternal life.'" (John 4:4-14)
(In case you're wondering, I think the Bible's an
amazing and sometimes beautiful document. So's the
Odyssey. But I don't take it literally or base my
political views on it. See GodHatesShrimp.com
A bucket of the holy water had been drawn from the
deep well, and the groundskeeper allowed us a cool
swallow. He demonstrated the depth by pouring a cup
of water down the well, and we waited several
impressive seconds before it hit the surface below.
I couldn't help but contrast the destroyed and
despised holy site of Joseph's Tomb, administered by
Israeli settlers and soldiers, with the respected and
tolerated holy site of Jacob’s Well, administered by
the Greek Orthodox Church. Both are European
non-Muslim presences in the midst of an overwhelmingly
Arab Muslim town. But the Jewish settlers had come as
arrogant conquerors and oppressors, while the
Christians had come as respectful neighbors.
Here's the essential difference: if some Zeus
worshippers came and purchased a small bit of
Stromboli, claiming it belonged to the patriarch
Odysseus, and lived in peace and harmony with their
neighbors according to Italian law, who would
complain? But if militant Zeusists stormed in,
implanted their own laws, acted like anyone who didn't
follow their laws was sub-human, violently kicked
everyone out of their homes and property, and used
Stromboli as a base from which to invade neighboring
Aeolian islands, I think the people of Stromboli, and
Italy, and Europe for that matter, would be pretty
miffed and alarmed.
The church has no problems even with the notoriously
militant refugee camp just across the street. But, to
bring it full circle, the church has had problems with
the occupation in general, and especially with the
settlers. I keep hearing fabricated or exaggerated
reports of Christians in the Holy Land being oppressed
by Muslims. Ask any Christian in the Territories how
they’re being oppressed (I’ve asked several), and
they’ll tell you the same thing (to paraphrase
Clinton): It’s the occupation, stupid.
I noticed a small commemorative plaque dedicated to a
priest who had been killed in the well chamber in
1979. A triptych showed the bearded, bespectacled
Greek being bludgeoned and bloodied by a robed madman
at the foot of the holy well.
The Palestinian caretaker said, “Yes, he was killed
right here, and here it shows the settler who did it.”
“A settler did this?” I asked, stunned. I really
shouldn’t have been, by now.
“Yes. A rabbi.”
“A rabbi offed a priest?” It sounded like the
beginning of a bad joke.
Over and over I keep thinking I can’t be shocked
anymore. This place never ceases to impress.
Dan and I did a quick loop around the Balata refugee
camp, which was poor and cramped, but not as hellish
on this beautiful day as I expected. The kids teased
us a bit, and the older boys tossed a couple of
good-natured expletives at us, more showing off their
vocabulary than intending us any insult. We had a
short conversation with a shopkeeper who’d dedicated
his life to teaching and was now retired and running a
If the recent memory of death and violence was
apparent in Nablus, it was thick here. And yet when
we looked around we just saw people, not fundamentally
different from anyone else, going about their daily
lives. Today it might be a crowded and poor but
otherwise fairly normal village. Tonight it might be
a killing field. An abyss awaits on all sides. But
life, such as it is, goes on. It doesn't have much
We walked around a bit more until the party started.
Nadia, who was leaving Nablus soon for a new job in
Jerusalem, was having a going away party. A local
Palestinian man rounded up the food and booze (alcohol
is pretty hard to come by in Nablus), and we went to a
young Scottish professor’s house for the festivities.
There I got to know a Moroccan Berber documentarian
and journalist from Germany and a guy with an accent
somewhere between France and South Central L.A. who’s
spent time in both places and claims to have been on a
date with Halle Berry. He was another law student who
hated lawyers and law firms. He's apparently working
with a guy who occasionally represents Hamas. I
wonder if he'll put that on his CV.
Dan and Nick and Nadia were there, and we all drank
and chatted, about politics and repression, culture
and travels, religion and the Pope (who died during
the party), long into the night.
* The Palestine Monitor
A PNGO Information Clearinghouse
Israeli Lawyer Claims Tom Hurndall killed by British
malpractice, not by Israeli gunfire to his head
23 May 2005
Tom Hurndall, a British peace activist, student, and
photographer, was shot in the head by an Israeli
soldier in April of 2003 as he was trying to protect
Palestinian children from Israeli tanks and gunfire in
the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. He later
died of his wounds after lying comatose in a British
hospital for nine months.
Yariv Ronen, the lawyer of the soldier who killed
Hurndall, said that the soldier should be acquitted of
manslaughter because, he claimed, Hurndall died not of
the injuries inflicted by the soldier, but due to
malpractice by British doctors.
Hurndall’s mother Jocelyn called the claims
“outrageous,” noting that her son had the best medical
In addition to manslaughter, the soldier has been
charged with two counts of obstruction of justice, one
count of submitting false testimony, one count of
obtaining false testimony, and one count of unbecoming
The verdict is expected on June 26.
The soldier, a Bedouin, noted the racist nature of
Israel’s policies regarding investigations into
murders: “If I were [Jewish], I would have been freed
a long time ago... [and] if [the victim] was a
Palestinian [instead of a British national], the army
would have closed the case a long time ago.”
Another soldier, Aymad Atawna, has already been
sentenced to jail for lying to protect the accused
Atawna originally told investigators that Hurndall
shot toward Israeli troops, but later confessed that
he lied and Hurndall in fact was not armed. The court
convicted him of inappropriate conduct and sentenced
him to 5 1/2 months in prison.
Two other British nationals have been killed in the
Palestinian territories by Israeli soldiers.
Award-winning filmmaker James Miller, 34, was shot and
killed in Rafah on May 1, 2003, while filming a
documentary about the impact of violence on children.
54-year-old UN aid worker Iain Hook was also shot in
the back and killed by an Israeli soldier (his
colleagues and UN investigators believe he was
assassinated in cold blood) on November 22, 2002, in
the Jenin refugee camp.
These murders were never brought to justice, either.
The soldiers who shot and killed them were only
indicted for such minor charges as “breaking the rules
of engagement” and “changing their story during the
course of the investigation.”
In the more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian
violence, during which Israeli soldiers have killed
hundreds of innocent, unarmed Palestinians and
foreigners under highly suspicious circumstances, the
Israeli military has investigated only a handful of
soldiers for harming Palestinians or foreigners, of
whom virtually none have been indicted for
manslaughter or murder.
Jocelyn Hurndall said that while there was an
investigation into her son’s death, she hoped the
trial would result in a change.
She said, “There are thousands of people who don't
have access to an investigation, and we are hoping
that the outcome of this trial will mean that there
will be more investigations for those who have been
killed or wounded.”
The Palestine Monitor advises her not to hold her
Next: Worst. Border crossing. Ever.